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From The Asian Reporter, V14, #42 (October 12, 2004), page 16.

Is Yao more Tao or Mao?

The Tao of Yao: Insights from Basketball’s Brightest Big Man

By Oliver Chin

Frog Ltd./North Atlantic Books, 2004

Paperback, 257 pages, $13.95

By Mike Street

Special to the Asian Reporter

Chinese-born Yao Ming is easily the biggest thing — physically and culturally — to hit the NBA’s hardwood since his nemesis Shaquille O’Neal. The highest-drafted Chinese player ever, Yao Ming caused an international sensation from the moment he appeared on Olympic hardwood in 2000. In Oliver Chin’s book, The Tao of Yao, Chin ties Yao’s approach to basketball to the religious philosophy of Taoism and the Chinese writers Lao Tzu and Sun Tzu. While this seems like an intriguing approach to this unique figure, Chin gives us instead a jumble of vaguely pertinent quotations from the two Tzus and NBA legends, and tells us little new about Yao Ming.

Taoism, at least as expressed by Lao Tzu in his famous text Tao Te Ching ("The Book of the Way"), embraces the opposites inherent in life, such as male and female or darkness and light. Whereas Western culture too often insists on a binary approach — a person is either a hero or villain, for example — Taoism allows for the blending of contradictory concepts, so that a person can be both good and evil. These opposites not only can exist side by side, according to Taoism, they must, and it is this tension that holds the universe together and drives it forward.

After explaining Taoism and its chief proponent, Lao Tzu, Chin attempts to tie various quotations of Lao Tzu (and later Sun Tzu) to Yao Ming. It is a nice conceit, but Chin often reduces these Taoist aphorisms to the same simplistic, fortune-cookie interpretations that he bemoans early in the book. Yao’s growth as a rookie is compared to Lao’s quotation about a tree beginning as a sapling, but this is neither illuminating nor particularly Taoist; every NBA Hall-of-Famer was once a gawking, gangly rookie learning the professional game.

Further on, Chin introduces the famous work The Art of War, by Sun Tzu, a near-contemporary of Lao Tzu. Long read by generals and coaches, this book offers such Taoist advice as appearing weak when you are strong (and vice versa) or using strong defense as an offensive tactic. It is a text that has been in use in basketball at least as long as Bobby Knight (as Chin himself admits), and yet Chin sounds as though Yao is the first athlete to embrace its teachings.

In fact, both Phil Jackson and Pat Riley, the two most influential and successful basketball coaches of the past twenty years, often cite The Art of War. Jackson has earned the nickname "The Zen Master" for using Asian philosophies in his coaching. Most probably Yao has followed the development of modern basketball strategy, and owes his allegiance to the principles of Knight, Riley, and Jackson more than Sun Tzu or Lao Tzu.

Superficially, Yao Ming does seem to adhere to some Taoist principles. His unselfish team play could be representative of the yin-yang balance of Taoism. In an era when players are lauded for their aggressiveness, Yao has often said that he does not have to play to learn, and some commentators have criticized his less-than-physical game. This, too, sounds like the balance of Taoism, especially Sun Tzu’s advice to use an enemy’s aggression against him.

But what Chin does not understand — or fails to acknowledge — is that basketball in China is still in its infancy, with the general level of talent nowhere near what it is in the United States. Teamwork and passing are emphasized more in China not because it is Taoist, but because they cannot simply give the ball to the next Kobe Bryant and watch him score. Many European players in the NBA came from a similar talent pool, and are also well-drilled in these fundamentals.

In his search for an elegant metaphor to explain the success of the Chinese phenomenon Yao Ming, Oliver Chin has looked too far. Rather than noting the effects of a communal culture that has appropriated modern basketball strategy and classic basketball techniques, Chin tries to find a deeper meaning, somewhat like invoking particle physics when explaining how to turn on a lamp.

If the book means to serve instead as the collected wisdom of an intelligent and groundbreaking athlete, then perhaps Chin should have focused more on Yao himself. The book would be better subtitled Insights About Basketball’s Brightest Big Man, since Yao Ming is far less quoted than his adulators. And the extensive biographies that accompany the citations are both unnecessary and distracting. Chin gives us two paragraphs on the history of Magic Johnson (one of the best-known NBA players in the last twenty years) just to hear him confirm the existence of rookie hazing.

All of these problems make one wonder for whom the book is intended. Basketball fans will be bored with the lengthy identification of every hoop luminary who ever said something nice about Yao Ming. Philosophers will undoubtedly be disappointed at the superficial appropriation of Taoism to sell a book about basketball. And Yao Ming fans will crave more information about their hero, who is seen only indirectly, through his quotes and those of others. Little is made of Yao’s childhood and upbringing (by two former members of the Chinese national basketball team), which undoubtedly had more influence on him than Taoism ever did. Comparing his humble, team- centric approach to Mao Tse Tung’s Communist ideals would make at least as much sense.

Yes, Yao Ming is a very good player who should someday be great, and many people are saying so, as Chin’s book so exhaustively attests. Yao’s unselfish, humble approach to the game is laudable, and his nice-guy image is a refreshing change from the street-tough antics of players like Rasheed Wallace and Allan Iverson. These make Yao Ming a huge figure, culturally as well as physically, and many people will make scads of money exploiting his fame. It’s just too bad that Oliver Chin is one of them.

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